NEW DELHI: To discover a new species is a huge honour for a biologist. By that yardstick, the achievements of Dr Sathyabhama Das Biju, an amphibian biologist at Delhi University, are staggering. He has discovered 42 species and is in the process of describing another 28, six new genera and one family - all of frogs.
Meet India's Frog Man, the champion of our amphibian diversity. This week, The Economist magazine featured him on its cover, a rare recognition for an Indian scientist. But for Biju, being in the limelight is an opportunity to make people aware of our vanishing wealth - 66% of Indian amphibians are under the threat of extinction, and if these little creatures vanish, a major ecological imbalance would follow.
"Amphibians were the first land animals and have a 350-million-year history. They are an environmental barometer and we can analyse the quality of our environment by studying them. We cannot imagine life without frogs. If there are no frogs, it would not be possible to grow anything in our fields," he says.
Biju, who works in the Systematics Lab of DU's Environmental Studies department, has been spending seven months a year in the forests of the Northeast and the Western Ghats for the past two decades. It's with this experience that he says the 'dream forest' cover of the Northeast will be lost forever in 20 years' time if urgent interventions are not made.
The scientist then makes a staggering claim: "India is yet to identify 50% of its flora and fauna." Many species of animals will become extinct, he says, without our even knowing they exist.
"For instance, 63 out of 350 amphibian species are no longer found. Amphibian conservation is less about money and more about rapid identification and management and creation of wetland and marshy areas. But we need to do this on a priority," he says. Biju is at present working on 28 new species of frogs which are yet to be described.
The neglect of small species stems from the way we look at wildlife, he says. "In India, when we say wildlife, we usually mean only tigers and elephants. This is a colonial way of looking at the importance of wildlife. But in the context of global warming and the biodiversity crisis, every specie is important for our survival," says he.
Winner of the $ 25,000 Sabin Award for 2008 given by The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) for his work on amphibian conservation and research and Earth hero Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Service Award 2011, Biju's central concern is the "tragedy of nameless extinction" of amphibians in India.
"We in India don't know 50% of our flora and fauna. Even small countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal have a list of the plants and animals found in their country. The tragedy is, we cannot recover destroyed biodiversity. In India, biodiversity and conservation is not in our agenda. We are just focused on GDP and profit. Environmental clearance is a mockery. If a green patch doesn't have elephants or tigers, it can be cleared for concretization," said Biju.
Biju, who is now expanding his scope of scientific research on frogs to central India, said that the Northeast is one of the richest regions in flora and fauna. "In India, the Northeast and Western Ghats are the best places for amphibians. But Northeast India's forests are now being ruthlessly destroyed primarily for jhoom cultivation (agriculture practiced by tribal groups), among other reasons," says he.
Biju and his team are currently working on a comprehensive book on importance of amphibians and its conservation.